Mary Tant’s Nature Blog

Successful classic crime writer Mary Tant, whose sixth Rossington West Country mystery – Don't Come Back – was published by Threshold in Spring 2012, writes about the natural world which is so important in her imaginative life.

July 2012

Sunday 1 July 2012

Bertie, my back garden blackbird, has been injured. He was perfectly alright first thing this morning, but later in the day he appeared looking very subdued, with the feathers badly disjointed on his left shoulder and chest. At first I was afraid his wing was damaged, but he seems to fly as well as ever.

In the garden he keeps under cover as far as possible, unless he flies up to one of his singing posts, which he seems to be doing with more frequency.

Other male blackbirds frequently intrude into his territory, but his response to them is normally belligerent, with raised feathers on his head making him look as though he's wearing a helmet. However fierce the fray I've never seen one of the birds this badly damaged. This time he's behaving differently, and I wonder if he's had a confrontation with a predator, either on his own behalf or defending one of his babies. I've seen three magpies flying into the trees at the bottom of the garden, a red kite passes over quite regularly, young kestrels sometimes try their luck, drawn by the noise and movement of the birds, and there are always the neighbourhood cats.

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Monday 2 July 2012

Bertie, my back garden blackbird, brought one of his large babies up to the back door today, close to the food source, and was very keen on being fed under cover of the bushes. Even moving around the garden Bertie is keeping to the ground, frequently peering up nervously. When he did venture onto the shed roof, one of his usual vantage points, it was without his normal confident stance. His head was craned right round, flattened against his back, his yellow-rimmed eyes staring up into the sky.

But he was also taking food away, so he is still feeding at least two babies. The one positioned in the garden does now peck around on the ground when he's left to his own devices.

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Tuesday 3 July 2012

The male sparrow huddled in a limp heap at the back of one of the mangers attached to my shed, which is filled with herbs. Some birds are particularly attracted to the coir lining, pulling strands of it out for nesting material.

I didn't know why he was there, but the sparrow had none of his breed's usual chirpy self-confidence.

As I approached cautiously I saw that one of his feet was trapped behind the upper bar of the manger. He became aware of me immediately and began to struggle wildly, exposing the raw mark on his ankle from earlier attempts to free himself.

I tried to ease the manger forward to release him, but found I'd pulled the end of it right off the screw that held it. At least the sparrow was able to fly away at once. And I was able to heave the manger back into position, much to my surprise.

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Wednesday 4 July 2012

A shower of tiny gold flakes drifted down from the juniper towards the terrace table where I sat in my back garden. Puzzled, I looked up and saw a pale brown bird edging awkwardly along the branches. As he clambered further down, out into the open, I saw that he was a very young starling, struggling to keep his balance over the twigs and prickly branches. He pushed his beak hopefully at one of his older siblings sitting on the fence, who totally ignored him to continue his own foraging.

A little further along the garden was another new baby starling, waiting for food in the branches of the orange blossom. So it seems my starling count is going up to ten.

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Thursday 5 July 2012

Curlews called over the New Forest plain, where the pink and purple bells have started to appear on the heather. On the grassy swathes white cattle lifted their horned heads to watch us pass. The turf was patterned with colour, stuffed with flowers like a mediaeval millefiori tapestry. Patches of mauve bugle broke up the ever-present theme of yellow potentilla, daisies mingled with pale pink centaury, blue milkwort and creamy clover.

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Friday 6 July 2012

A charm of goldfinches first came to my back garden several years ago, one January, to feed on the seeds of the lavender that I hadn't cut back. I now leave this job until the spring, but have several goldfinches for most of the year, generally occupying the nyjer seed feeder.

In the spring this year the group gave way to a single pair. These two have regularly perched on the feeder together in the early morning and late afternoon, their feeding synchronised so that their heads bob up and down alternately.

They have also migrated for the first time to the feeders under the bird table, one of which now holds pieces of sunflower seed. And the family numbers seem to be increasing, presumably as babies emerge – there were at least four goldfinches at one time recently.

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Saturday 7 July 2012

It looked like a seven-league boot stride, the tiny frog swinging across the lawn at the full length of his long legs. I only caught sight of him as he reached the plants edging the pond, where he quickly disappeared from view. But this is the first year for some time that I've seen very small frogs here.

For many years they were so numerous in the summer that I had to watch where I put my feet when I moved around the garden. And Tirn, my collie, would regularly come and fetch me if he found them away from the pond where he knew they should be.

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Sunday 8 July 2012

A pair of wood pigeons has nested in my garden for many years, often raising a single youngster from each of three broods per year. Their first nest each year was usually in the yellow cypress, a rash site as it's very exposed to wind and rain.

But this has been taken over by the starlings, who've made the tree their own, roosting in it now the first youngsters of the year have hatched. The pigeons have moved down to the firs beyond the bottom of the garden, which they share with the collared doves.

Co-existence isn't always harmonious, and I often see one of the collared doves bullying a much larger pigeon. At first the pigeon seemed very surprised to be harassed like this, and was always driven away. Now the pigeon is more inclined to stand his or her ground, and react defensively as soon as the collared dove comes within range. So at the moment they both fly off in a harried state after a short spat, and I'm not quite sure if one is chasing the other.

But an eggshell, like a piece of cracked white china, lay under the firs recently, indicated the pigeons have hatched at least one more baby. So too has the robin, who dropped one half of a sky-blue eggshell in the centre of the lawn. I know it's to distract attention from his nest, but I can't help seeing it as a pointer for me – more mealworms required. Robbie, the male robin, attends all feedings regularly, constantly carrying away food. Should I not immediately notice him he skilfully manages to move into my line of vision, attracting my notice so that my hand moves down to the all-important tub.

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Monday 9 July 2012

Bertie, my back garden blackbird, is back to his usual confident self. Although his chest feathers have settled back into place over the last week, he still has a slightly bulky appearance on the left side.

He has left one of his large babies, Charlie, in the garden during the last week and Charlie can often be seeing skulking under the bushes or perched in the juniper. He sat in the tree one afternoon, dozing for more than a couple of hours until Bertie came to feed him.

By the weekend Bertie was reglarly bringing Charlie to meet me whenever he saw me in the garden or the garden room, and appears to be training the baby to trigger the food giving. Several times now Charlie has landed in front of me while Bertie remains in the background watching events unfold. At first Charlie was startled into flying up to his dad when I threw down the mealworms, but now he stands his ground. Although he still waits for Bertie to come down and feed him, I've seen Charlie pecking away quite efficiently when he's left on his own.

Bertie has clearly got another good source of food, as he flew in today with a beakful of cheese from elsewhere, stuffing it into Charlie's beak as the baby perched expectantly in the willow beside the pond.

The alteration in Bertie's appearance has made it clear that I've actually been feeding two male blackbirds on demand in the back garden. The second, Cody, is so familiar with the process of getting mealworms that I guess he must be one of Bertie's babies from last year, the third generation to come to us for food.

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Tuesday 10 July 2012

The mint in the pot outside my back door was moving jerkily in the still air. As one stem bounced upright I spotted a blue tit at its base, vigorously pulling off the lower leaves. The delicate watercolour shades of his feathers were an almost perfect camouflage, so that his plump body was quite hard to see as he squirmed around the pot. Fortunately he only operated on a couple of stems before moving on to a different item on his menu.

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Wednesday 11 July 2012

The constant insistent single note birdcall drew me down the back garden to the arbour. There, in a repeat of last year's performance, sat a fat new blackbird baby. He squatted on the back of the bench, his wide beak dominating his appearance as he stared unblinkingly back at me.

I stood for some time watching him, until I was aware of a repeated low call from behind the trellis at the top of the fence. There was the baby's father, crouching and barely visible. He slipped low over the top of the trellis to join the baby, but was too anxious to deliver the great beakful of food he'd brought. It was Cody, the second of my back garden blackbirds, who soon disappeared, leaving the baby unfed.

Shortly afterwards Bertie flew past into the firs with food for one of his own youngsters. I don't know whether Bertie didn't see the intruder's baby, or if he just ignored it. A low call from behind the back fence seemed to summon Cody's baby. He flew clumsily forward, attempting to perch on one of the arbour supports, but tumbling down it into the gilliflowers below. He must have scuttled off on foot through these to Cody.

This little incident certainly seems to explain the puzzle of the baby who sat in plain view on the garden table earlier this year when Bertie and Bella certainly weren't feeding it. This must have been an early offspring of Cody's – and, in effect, probably Bertie and Bella's grandchild.

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Thursday 12 July 2012

Four pale starling babies come to be fed on the back garden terrace, approaching any adult bird hopefully. They were actually the responsibility of only two birds, and only these two provided food. I thought my starling count had reached twelve with these youngsters, but it looks set to grow even higher as I saw an adult carrying tiny pieces of mealworm up to the firs, presumably to a nest full of unfledged babies.

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Friday 13 July 2012

One of the wood pigeons was upended in the top of the juniper in the back garden, which was cut back a few feet last year. The upside down tail wiggled and squirmed, and for an awful moment I was afraid I had another trapped bird. Then the tail disappeared and the pigeon emerged, triumphantly gripping just the piece of prickly stem it needed to give to its partner.

Later in the day there was a definite scrum taking place under my tiered viburnam plicatum. Two large bodies burst out, still tussling until they fell apart, wings jutting and eyes glaring at each other. Eventually one wood pigeon flew heavily away, followed awkwardly by the victor.

Nearby was a heap of dried juniper stems, piled quite neatly like a bonfire under construction. The incumbent wood pigeon, male I think, must have been extracting these from the tree and creating a heap before conveying individual pieces up to his mate for approval.

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Saturday 14 July 2012

Reflected perfectly in the still surface of the canal, the broad bracket fungus grew from the base of the tree, just above the water. Golden brown and freckled on top, creamy white underneath, its colours was as bright in the reflection as they were in reality.

On the far bank of the canal, a leggy moorhen chick stood still for a moment on a wooden landing stage on the island. Near me, on the footpath side, its mother stood for a moment staring across the canal, then scurried forward with a flash of her brilliant white petticoat feathers and launched herself into the water. The baby took this as a signal, running into cover in an overhanging willow, perhaps to get to his mother faster.

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Sunday 15 July 2012

Animals had taken over the Dartmoor lanes when we arrived early in the morning. A large rabbit moved slowly across in front of us, pausing by the verge, waiting for the tiny youngster who skittered across a second later. Just before we branched off to the cottage we had to skirt a heavily horned ewe, laying regally in the middle of the lane, her chunky lamb behind her attempting to imitate her nonchalance.

The foxglove spires decorating the hedges seemed like a string of flags, purple flowers protruding at a range of eccentric angles. They led us to the moor gate and the walk up the slopes towards the tors.

It was six o'clock in the morning, the only sounds the flurried wingbeats and chattering alarm calls of wheatears that burst out of the gorse bushes as Tirn, my elderly collie, and I made our way up the pitted path. He was so glad to be back that he did the climb in very good time, pausing only occasionally for an intensive sniff to see who had been passing in his absence.

The sky was unusually blue with cauliflower-like cumulus clouds growing in the west. From the ridge, the sky in the east still had the deep pink glow of dawn. But Tirn didn't want to pause to admire the view or pick out the church and cottages of the village. All he wanted was to cross the grassy summit, picking his way between the boulders, and dip down over the ridge and hurry on to the cottage below.

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Monday 16 July 2012

There are pinkish white stonecrop flowers on the flat surfaces of the rocks embedded in the earth below the Dartmoor tor. Yellow tormentil, a tiny form of potentilla, glitters like sequins scattered across the green turf. Plumes of tiny white bedstraw stars froth through the grass, with here and there the fragile white wheel spokes of chickweed spangling the longer grass.

The valley below the Dartmoor cottage has grown into a green thicket. The trees overhead screen the view and the bushes and grasses below almost hide the water that runs downhill in its curving stepped bed. Marking the point where the brook runs out under the cottage drive, one slender foxglove stands beside a European ash, the purple flowers contrasting with the pale trunk patterned with dark lichen, like spots on a lynx.

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Tuesday 17 July 2012

Slender blond grasses grow as miniatures on the flat surface at the top of Tirn's rock on his special tor. The tiny feathery grass tips all bent westward under the strong wind, that rippled the water in the small basin that weather has carved in the rock, right down in the lowest dip. Nearby a scattering of pink and white stonecrop was bravely colonising the blackened remains of earlier frost-damaged lichen.

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Wednesday 18 July 2012

The curving line of stones marking a prehistoric field boundary swept down the far slope of the moor, across the lane and disappeared out of sight up the slope on my left. High up on the far slope, just below the ridge, I could faintly make out the remains of a round house.

This whole landscape was crisscrossed with field boundaries and tiny communities. Their traces, of fields and homes, can easily be lost among the litter of boulders that lie haphazardly across the moor, or smothered under bracken and gorse.

I stood looking at the slopes that had been so busily occupied and farmed all those centuries ago. About me long blonde grasses waved and fluttered in the wind, reaching above my knees. Suddenly a black head reared up on a long slender neck. It was one of the alpacas, staring at the intruder. Certainly not a sight the prehistoric villagers would have seen.

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Thursday 19 July 2012

Tiny tan-coloured faces peered placidly out of the long grass and heather near the moor gate as I walked up the lane. Young calves, born here on the slope of the tors, left in a bovine crèche as their mothers grazed nearby. One youngster, braver or more curious than his peers, was following the adults, almost overbalancing on his long legs.

I'm always careful to look out for the guardian cow, who is quick to spot potential threats to the youngsters. Wander too close to the shielding greenery and the cow swings round to face you, lowering her head slightly, warningly, her sharp pointed horns ready to defend the calves. Only once did this happen to me, high on the ridge when I thought I was far enough away from the youngsters. The cow thought otherwise, so I swiftly moved further aside in a much wider curve, stumbling over gorse stems blackened by the spring swaling and picking my way through the boggy morass left by cow hooves. The cow watched me closely until I was some distance away, far enough not to be seen as a threat.

It's at moments like this that I'm glad not to have Tirn, my elderly collie, with me. He's no longer able to move aside swiftly, and it can take a while to persuade him to move off paths he expects to follow.

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Friday 20 July 2012

The tiny corpse lay in the centre of the ridge path, his beak pointing upwards, his wings neatly at his side, as if he'd been formally laid out under the shade of the overhanging trees. He was a young thrush, with no sign of injury or attack, but very thin.

Nearby the purslane still flowered gaily, two months after its initial profusion. The bulk of the pink blooms now were herb Robert, and campion, with just a smattering of blue globularia tufts and yellow St John's wort.

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Saturday 21 July 2012

Home again, it took the blackbirds a while to realise we were around. But soon there was an indignant call at the back door, and I looked up to see Bertie, the territorial male, standing on the step waiting for mealworms. I'd been aware of his low call for some time, but hadn't realised it was addressed at me until the pitch changed.

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Monday 23 July 2012

Before we went away Charlie, the blackbird baby, came to ask for food on his own, appearing almost as soon as he saw me. In his eagerness he often came hurrying up the garden straight towards the back door, half running, half flying.

He even came down the courtyard to the French windows if he heard me talking in the dining room. He would wait there patiently and look round him, puzzled, when I went out of the back door to the terrace and called him.

Bertie, the adult blackbird, and Charlie even once perched side by side on the water barrel outside the garden room window. They peered in with identical twists of their heads, their bright eyes fixed on me as I sat on the bench working. As I put out mealworms I found a surprise visitor, Bertie's second baby, waiting shyly at the top of the garden steps.

And later that same day I found another baby in the front garden, Billie's offspring, approaching the water bowl in the shade beneath the elder. I'm really not sure whether there has been an intruder, Cody, with a baby in the back garden, or whether this was Billie quietly infiltrating Bertie's territory, as he's done before.

But now, after nearly a week away, the blackbird scene has changed. There's no sign of the younger birds in either the front or back gardens. In fact, I haven't yet seen Billie, the front garden adult male. In the back garden, though, Bertie is just as eager for mealworms, appearing whenever he sees or hears me. His lopsided appearance has disappeared, but his feathers look more ruffled, with one or two sticking out at odd angles, ready to fall.

Bella, Bertie's mate, is more active now that she's finished raising her babies. I often see her shadowy figure scurrying under the bushes or hurrying across the lawn. In this hot weather I have a deckchair on the lawn at teatime, and Bertie keeps me company for a while. Bella comes close, keen to share the feast, then she sees me and scuttles away into cover to watch what happens.

Today she found an alternative treat. I saw my red gooseberry bush shaking, and watched for a while until I saw Bella fly out, a gooseberry gripped in her beak. She landed on the brick path and ran down it to the privacy of the arbour, where I could just see her pecking juicy pieces out of the fruit.

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Tuesday 24 July 2012

There was a sudden abrupt movement when I was clearing leaves from behind the terrace table, and two yellow arms appeared over the rim of a broken pot under the pyracantha. It was followed by a large triangular head and a plump body, which was perched casually over the pottery shard as its owner watched me. One of the largest of my pond frogs, quite unconcerned that I'd disturbed him, perhaps hopeful that my efforts were going to supply fresh juicy earthworms.

This very hot weather has brought the frogs out of the pond in force. As I cut back Welsh poppies by the edge of the waterfall a tiny frog, a pale greenish brown, leaped high in front of me, giving me a fright. He landed on one of the granite rocks, freezing into stillness. If I hadn't seen him settle there, I would hardly have spotted him against the rough surface.

A little later I had to stop suddenly, to allow a very dark, medium-sized, frog to walk across the slope in front of me. He slipped over the rim of the pond, creating a violent eddy as he sank out of sight in the water.

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Wednesday 25 July 2012

Before I went away I counted twenty-one starlings sitting on the tops of the fir trees, waiting for the main food to be put down on the lawn. Going into the garden there was always a cacophony of sounds as they practised their repertoire of noises, imitating what they've heard. The air was full of whistling, cackling, humming, chattering, and the rustling of wings and leaves as the birds moved around.

The youngsters liked to dip in the waterfall pools later in the day, emerging after a brisk flurry in a shower of flying drops to perch in the willow. They preened diligently, shaking themselves until it seemed as though it was raining again.

There were so many starlings that I stopped putting food down on the main lawn in the mornings, restricting it to the blackbirds and robin, with an occasional sparrow, when they visit me on the terrace.

Now that we're back, the mass visitation doesn't seem to happen, but I half a dozen of the birds still occasionally fly in. I can't tell whether this is due to my absence, the reduced food supply or the young moving on. But the noise and mess has gone down to manageable proportions again.

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Thursday 26 July 2012

The hay had been cut in meadow on the way to the common by the time we came home from Dartmoor. It lay in small ridges, making the best use of the hot drying time, and now it's been rolled into thick cartwheel-sized reels. They lay haphazardly across the bleached stubble like a modernistic artist's creation.

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Friday 27 July 2012

Bertie's youngster, Charlie, made repeated efforts to come to me for mealworms today, but on each occasion he was vigorously chased off by Bella, his mother. A much thinner youngster, came too, lurking well back. This was undoubtedly Charlie's sibling, the one I only glimpsed recently for the first time, called Cindy.

Bella has become more relaxed about feeding near me, coming close to my deckchair at teatime, although she doesn't linger long.

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Saturday 28 July 2012

The nest was a deep cup, and was totally hidden in the gold-rimmed green leaves of elaeagnus, about ten feet from the back garden terrace. It was carefully woven of grass stems, thicker on the outside, finer on the inside, with a rim of coir from my troughs and a delicate outer coat of moss. Inside were two pieces of pale blue eggshell, one with congealed yolk, and a complete cold egg.

The elaeagnus had come under the fence and didn't really complement the magnolia and daphne that grow beside it. But I had allowed it to grow up against the fence, through the clematis netting, clipping it over the last four years until it has become a hedge about a foot thick.

I hoped it would become a good nesting spot, especially in high summer when much of it is screened by other shrubs and the currant bushes that grow in front of it. It is sheltered from the wind and the rain, and faces east, getting the morning sun, but sheltered from the main heat of midday and the afternoon.

Finding the nest justified certainly keeping the intruding plant. It's definitely one of Bella's, in the best site I've known her to use, and it was the key to understanding the blackbird activity in the back garden this spring and summer.

I still think she's only had two broods this year, and wonder if she's used this nest for both. With the constant wet weather I haven't been outside as much as I was last year, and the elaeagnus isn't visible from the garden room window. The only times I was aware of nest building and nestling feeding during the year, Bertie and Bella were flying into the firs at the back of the garden. But there is a well-covered short route from there to the elaeagnus, which would keep them well screened from the local magpies.

With this latest evidence, I don't think Billie, the front garden blackbird, did infiltrate the back garden with one of his youngsters this year. I think now that all the baby blackbirds I've seen there have been Bertie's, and that he's been keeping a much lower profile while feeding them. So that means he's had greater breeding success than I'd feared, with definitely three, probably four, surviving youngsters.

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Sunday 29 July 2012

The blackbirds swarmed onto my back lawn after heavy rain at lunchtime. Bella, the mother of the babies, was at the front, with four large youngsters scattered at intervals behind her. They were all pecking at the ground, frequently pulling out startled worms, and Bella was so busy with this bonanza of fresh meat that she didn't bother to chase the brood away.

Bertie was there too, a bedraggled figure on the shed roof, keener on mealworms as a starter than his family were. Or perhaps he was just keeping up his role, initiating the feeding machine.

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Monday 30 July 2012

Canada geese sat beside the bank of the Beaulieu river in the New Forest, looking just as if they were watching the moored boats bobbing on the incoming tide. Nearby, a bright white flash marked a little egret landing on the edge of one of the channels in the salt marsh where the water was running in, rippling gently under the wind. A long-necked cormorant flew low along the edge of the river, a distinctive black silhouette against the gunmetal grey of the river.

The pale brown and green of the salt marsh was hazed with purple from sea lavender. Tall rushes and sedges grew closer to the land, their reddish brown flower heads bobbing up and down. They sheltered the band of marsh mallows, whose white flowers were embedded in silvery grey leaves.

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Tuesday 31 July 2012

Bertie, my back garden blackbird, and Bella, his mate, both visit me regularly in the garden now, and Charlie comes occasionally, and is tolerated for a short time by his parents. Bertie is hardly ever silent when he comes up for mealworms, and sometimes these days he comes for only a few, just to keep my feeding skills in fine fettle. If only I had Dr Doolittle skills I'd know what he was communicating when he comes.

He maintains a continuous low musical monologue when he's feeding, cocking his head from time to time to watch me. He has a particular brighter tune to attract my attention if I'm slow in noticing him. Then there's the occasional sharper chirp, and a more staccato warble, and a monotonous sound like a soft bell chiming repeatedly. This I hear all round the garden in the evening, with Bella calling back in the same key, although I often don't see either of them. This is the only sound I hear her make, and Charlie is usually silent.

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